Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Your State Capital Is Threatened by Climate Change? Maybe It’s Time to Move It.

Some of America’s capital cities are especially vulnerable to floods, coastal storms, land subsidence and other risks. Moving their functions elsewhere could be critical to governance.

Storm surge floodwaters overrun a park on Boston Harbor.
Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, lies in the northwest corner of Java, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago. It will not serve as the capital for much longer: Earlier this year, Indonesia announced that the capital will be relocated to East Kalimantan. The Parliament legislated the relocation in the face of the undeniable effects of climate change on Jakarta, including waste crises, severe floods, land subsidence, air and river pollution, and coastal storms.

Known for being “the fastest sinking city in the world,” almost half of Jakarta sits below sea level, and it has been estimated that one-third of the city could be completely submerged by 2050. While Jakarta’s fate may be particularly stark, the number of capital cities across the globe that may suffer the consequences of global climate change is growing, and it includes at least five state capitals in the United States: Annapolis, Md., Boston, Mass., Charleston, W.Va., Harrisburg, Pa., and Honolulu, Hawaii.

In Honolulu, for example, beaches are eroding and groundwater pumping is causing the city to sink. The risks posed by tsunamis and tropical storms have become chronic. Honolulu is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels, which are projected to climb more than three feet by 2060. If sea levels rise six feet by 2100 (which the United Nations projects as a possibility), the entire city and its outer areas would be submerged.
SCIENCE MATTERS: Rising sea lifts inland water table
How rising sea level causes inland flooding in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Annapolis, Boston, Charleston and Harrisburg face similar climate-change challenges, along with the same compounding issues: rising sea levels and drenching rainfalls that cause flooding, land subsidence due to groundwater pumping, and increased vulnerability as both coastal and inland storms get stronger. While many U.S. cities may be exploring ways to prevent worst-case scenarios, as in Indonesia, capital-city relocation in some states may become unavoidable given the critical importance of these cities as governmental centers. The time for governmental leaders in these states to plan for this eventuality is now.

The process by which capital-city relocation could be accomplished varies from state to state, but follows a similar path in Hawaii, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In these states, the capital city is designated as the seat of government in the state’s constitution, which means that a constitutional amendment would be required to relocate the capital. Under each constitution, the legislature may propose such an amendment and, if both chambers approve (either by simple majority or two-thirds majority depending on the state), the amendment is either put to a statewide vote or the change is put up for ratification via a constitutional convention.

Both West Virginia and Pennsylvania have relocated their capital cities in the past. The most recent change was in 1885, when West Virginia moved its capital to Charleston, following several back-and-forth relocations between that city and Wheeling. The process was not quick: Once the proposal was on the ballot and voters approved it, implementation took about eight years.

Massachusetts would have to follow a different route. The Massachusetts Constitution does not explicitly identify the commonwealth’s capital city; by the time the constitution was ratified in 1780, Boston had served in that role for more than a century. Relocating the capital from the coastline would not require a constitutional amendment, but rather the passage of legislation designating the new site and providing funding for the move.

Though the list of cities likely to experience the effects of climate change is long, capital cities require particular attention. These cities are different. As the geographer Jean Gottmann observed, capitals serve as “a special hosting environment to provide what is required for the safe and efficient performance of the functions of government and decision-making characteristics of the place.” In U.S. states, they are literally the place where democratic impulses are operationalized.

In its decision to relocate its seat of government, the Indonesian government acknowledged the special role of its capital city. The Indonesian experience should serve as notice to U.S. states with capitals at risk due to climate change. While enacting the constitutional amendments or legislation necessary to relocate a capital may be burdensome and not without its own controversies, it remains that citizens expect that there will be a place in their state where the basic functions of democratic governance can occur securely and without interruption.

Lawrence Friedman teaches constitutional law at New England Law | Boston and is the editor of the Oxford Commentaries on the State Constitutions of the United States. Corinne Ray is a third-year law student at New England Law | Boston.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
From Our Partners